1736 - 1799
Patrick Henry, Southern orator and statesman, whose fiery patriotism was influential in leading the colonies toward revolution.
Henry was born on May 29, 1736, in Hanover County, Virginia, and was largely self-educated. From 1751 until 1760 he was first a storekeeper and then a farmer. Failing at both occupations, he undertook the study of law and in 1760 was admitted to the Virginia bar.
"Radical," is a title that few
men can wear with ease. The name Patrick Henry, during the
revolution and for some time after, was synonymous with that
word in the minds of colonists and Empire alike. Henry's
reputation as a passionate and fiery orator
exceeded even that of Samuel Adams. His Stamp Act Resolutions
were, arguably, the first shot fired in the Revolutionary War.
Patrick Henry's personality was a curious antidote to the stern honor of Washington, the refined logic of Jefferson, and the well-tempered industry of Franklin. Young Henry was an idler and by many accounts a derelict; though everyone knew he was bright, he simply would not lift a finger except to his own pleasure. By the age of 10, his family knew that he would not be a farmer, and tried instead to train him toward academe. He would not apply himself to studies either. At age 21 his father set him up in a business that he bankrupted shortly thereafter. Finally the general public disgust in Hanover and pressure from his young family (he had married at the age of eighteen) caused him to study for six weeks and take the bar exam, which he passed, and begin work as a lawyer.
In 1764 he moved to Louisa county, Virginia, where, as a lawyer, he argued in defense of broad voting rights (suffrage) before the House of Burgesses. By 1763 he had become a prominent lawyer, and two years later he became a member of the colonial legislature of Virginia, the House of Burgesses, where he introduced seven resolutions against the Stamp Act. He concluded his speech with: “Caesar had his Brutus, Charles the First his Cromwell, and George the Third—may profit by their example.” In answer to the cries of treason from conservative members, Henry replied, “If this be treason, make the most of it.” Five of his resolutions were carried by a small majority, and all seven were printed in the colonial newspapers as the Virginia Resolves. Reelected to the House of Burgesses in 1769, Henry joined with the radical faction, which was ready to precipitate an open break with Great Britain. When the House of Burgesses was dissolved in 1774, Henry became a member of the revolutionary convention of Virginia. Speaking before the convention in 1775, he urged the adoption of a resolution to establish a state of defense in Virginia with a speech that is famous for these words: “I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!” It was that year that he proposed the Virginia Stamp Act Resolutions. Few members of the Burgesses, as aristocratic a group of legislators as existed in the colonies, would argue openly for defiance of Gr. Britain. Henry argued with remarkable eloquence and fervor in favor of the five acts, which by most accounts amounted to a treason against the mother country. In 1774 he represented Virginia in the First Continental Congress where he continued in the role of firebrand. At the outbreak of the revolution, he returned to his native state and lead militia in defense of Virginia's gunpowder store, when the royal Governor spirited it aboard a British ship. Henry forced the Governor Lord Dunmore to pay for the power at fair price.
In 1776, Henry was elected Governor of Virginia. He was re-elected for three terms and then succeeded by Thomas Jefferson. He was again elected to the office in 1784. Patrick Henry was a strong critic of the constitution proposed in 1787. He was in favor of the strongest possible government for the individual states, and a weak federal government. He was also very critical of the fact that the convention was conducted in secret. Henry was subsequently made chairman of a committee to prepare a defense plan for Virginia during the American Revolution. He was (1774-76) a delegate to the First and Second Continental Congresses and helped draft the Virginia Constitution. He also served (1776-79, 1784-86) as governor of the state. During his first gubernatorial term he sent the American soldier and frontiersman George Rogers Clark on a military expedition to the Northwest. In 1788, as a delegate to the Virginia convention for the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, Henry opposed the document on the ground that it threatened the rights of states and individuals. Largely through his efforts, the provisions known as the Bill of Rights were adopted as the first ten amendments to the Constitution. Henry was offered many governmental posts, but declined them, continuing his law practice. In 1799 he was elected to the Virginia legislature, but he died on June 6 of that year before taking his seat.
President Washington appointed him Secretary of State in 1795, but Henry declined the office. In 1799, President Adams appointed him envoy to France, but failing health required him to decline this office too. He died on the sixth of June, 1799 at the age of sixty-two.